Written by James M. Cain, Adapted for the stage by David Pichette & R. Hamilton Wright, Directed by Weylin Symes; Scenic, Lighting & Projection Design by Christopher Ostrom; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Schufelt; Sound Design, Nathan Leigh; Production Stage Manager, Lauria Kincaid; Fight Choreographer, Adam McLean
CAST: Melis Aker, Aimee Doherty, Sean McGuirk, Michael Underhill, Lewis D. Wheeler
Performances through November 4 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org
Christopher Ostrom, Rachel Padula-Schufelt, and Nathan Leigh deserve top billing for creating the noir atmosphere of Double Indemnity, the play receiving its New England premiere at Stoneham Theatre. Combining a black and white visual scheme with stark, shadowy lighting and underscoring of portentous music, the achievement of the three designers supersedes the attempt of the actors to match onstage the impact of larger-than-life iconic screen figures. The familiar story of the insurance salesman seduced by a housewife into helping her murder her husband to collect on his accident policy comes across as stilted and insubstantial in the confines of the proscenium theater.
It is counterintuitive to suggest that a live performance feels less vibrant than a film, but under the direction of Weylin Symes, the main characters of Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirlinger are flat. Lewis D. Wheeler's interpretation of the insurance guy turned criminal mastermind is so low key that it seems he has confused that with noir style tough guy. For her part, Aimee Doherty shows a lot of leg to entice Huff, but is not convincing as the femme fatale that Phyllis is supposed to be. She is more bored suburban housewife than daring temptress. Therefore, when Huff agrees to help her, it seems to come out of left field rather than that he has fallen under her spell.
Melis Aker as Phyllis' stepdaughter Lola does get the melodramatic quality of her character and earns the sympathy of the audience after her father is murdered, leaving her home alone with her cold stepmother. Sean McGuirk is natural as both the doomed husband and Huff's co-worker, the insurance investigator Keyes, who doggedly sniffs around the case. Michael Underhill is a snarky investigator, as well as Lola's ne'er-do-well boyfriend.
The one scene that will increase your heart rate is the killing and watching to see how Walter and Phyllis intend to sidetrack the authorities. After the deed, both are on edge and Doherty does a good job of going off the rails, so to speak. Unfortunately, because the performances are uneven, Double Indemnity fails to build the necessary levels of suspense and things that should be surprising sometimes elicit laughs instead of gasps. If the most thrilling aspects of the play are the lighting and the projections, one might as well see the 1944 Billy Wilder motion picture.
Photo credit: David Costa (Sean McGuirk, Lewis D. Wheeler, Aimee Doherty)